— Democratic Rep. Greg Harris stood in front of his desk Monday night and voiced the question on the minds of the roughly dozen advocates, lobbyists and lawmakers packed into his small office near the Capitol: Should he call the gay marriage bill for a vote the next day?
Supporters had counted noses and estimated 58, maybe 59 House members were prepared to vote “yes” on the stalled plan to legalize same-sex marriage in Illinois. They needed 60.
Putting the bill on the board without knowing enough votes were there carried significant political risk. Hoping a final legislator or two would be moved by a sudden urge to make history was a gamble. A lawmaker could be absent, and the roll call could fall off. Perhaps it was better to wait until next year when the last bit of support could be rounded up.
After an hour-and-a-half of deliberations, the group decided the count was close enough to go for it, according to four people in the room. The next day, the bill passed with 61 votes — one more than the minimum required. The Senate quickly signed off, and Gov. Pat Quinn plans to sign the bill into law Nov. 20. On June 1, Illinois will become the 15th state where same-sex couples can wed legally, though lawmakers are toying with the idea of approving another measure to bump up the date.
"It was successful, so at the end of the day I think we did the right thing," said Harris, chief sponsor of the legislation. "The proof is in the pudding, as they say."
Those last few uncertain hours illustrate the difficulty supporters had in passing the measure, a process that started more than a year ago and was beset by early missteps that included failure in the Senate and a major embarrassment in the House. Harris’ decision not to call the bill at the end of the spring session brought divisions in the gay marriage movement to the surface and led to a frenzied push over the summer to turn things around.
While support remained fluid, advocates said much of the work the past several months focused on about 21 House Democrats identified during a potential roll call gathered before the legislature left town at the end of May. At that time, 50 Democrats and two Republicans had pledged to vote for the bill. Meanwhile, 11 Democratic members said they planned to vote “no” and 10 Democrats were undecided.
One lawmaker advocates had placed in the “no” camp was Rep. John D’Amico, a North Side Democrat who in 2010 voted against legislation that granted civil unions to same-sex couples. D’Amico was the subject of intense lobbying by both sides. Religious groups appealed to his Catholic faith, while gay rights groups hounded him with polling data that showed wide backing for gay marriage by residents of his district.
D’Amico, a district foreman for the city water department and a Rahm Emanuel ally, received a number of calls from the mayor asking him to support the bill. D’Amico said he also was lobbied by Madigan.
"In the end, it had to be my decision," said D’Amico, who added he met with his constituents for months and heard a lot of support for gay marriage. "The reason I did it is because I don’t believe in discrimination of any kind, and I feel it’s my job as an elected official to try and reflect what the district wants."
While the speaker chalked up his ability to win votes “to the art of persuasion,” Madigan also controls the purse strings to campaign funds that can make or break a tough race. Some lawmakers feared voting for gay marriage would inspire those opposed to the bill to run against them in the March primary election, but Madigan stressed that voting for gay marriage was the politically expedient thing to do as public opinion grows in its favor.
"There was some political turkey talking," Harris said. "As legislators, sometimes we get a skewed view based on the proponents and opponents who call us and are just so vociferous, but I think it was important for people to understand the polling data, to see that this is where America is going, this is where your district is going, and you need to move with the times."
Lawmakers who acknowledge they were worried about the political fallout of voting for gay marriage say they are prepared to defend the choice.
To address another concern, the bill was amended to reiterate that churches and affiliated groups wouldn’t be forced to host or perform gay marriage ceremonies.
"Once the amendment was filed, I was ready to move forward," said Rep. Andre Thapedi, who represents the Englewood neighborhood. "If not, I may have gone a different way."
The change was pushed by Democratic Rep. Anthony DeLuca of Chicago Heights, who said he struggled to reconcile his Italian-Catholic upbringing and the desire to protect religious rights with his oath to represent the people of his district and correct what he believes is a “legal inequity.”
"I was shocked through this process how many close family friends would contact me that live in the district who are closely affiliated with the Catholic Church who have a gay child or gay relative and asked me to support it," DeLuca said. "It was surprising to me, I learned a lot."
In the end, the multipronged effort proved fruitful: Of the eight targeted undecided members of the black caucus, five voted “yes,” one voted “no” and two voted “present.” Gay marriage backers also picked up an additional Republican vote in Rep. Tom Cross of Oswego, a former House GOP leader now running for state treasurer. The bill cleared the House hurdle with a vote to spare.
Meanwhile, the successful efforts to pass gay marriage in Illinois in a relatively short time have advocates in other states seeking advice on how to launch a similar strategy.